After a good long run of computer game reviews, I've decided to branch out a bit with my reviews. I expect my repetoire to soon include Technology Reviews, on electronic devices, and Cinematic Reviews, on a relatively small number of movies, but both of them retaining that comprehensive approach which I've refined over my time with my Comprehensive and Retrospective computer game reviews.
So, here comes the first of my Cinematic Reviews, and in fact, the very first movie review that I've ever done. Strange, because I'm more of an outspoken movie nerd than I am a computer game nerd, familiar with many of the cinephile's terms of choice, and with one of my "reads of the month" including an almost cover-to-cover look at Empire Magazine. So, please, by any means, feel free to shred this review to as many pieces as you can. I can only improve with constructive criticism.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly - A Cinematic Review
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is a 1966 Western film, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. One of the most often-mimicked and referenced movies in existence, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is an iconic film, one which opened up a new dimension in the Western with its novel approach.
The film follows three outlaws as they cross a country divided and ravaged by civil war in a journey across the southern states of America, battling to unearth a fortune in stolen gold buried beneath an unmarked grave. Clint Eastwood returns as the "Man With No Name", and ostensibly the "Good", with Lee Van Cleef the resolutely "Bad", and Eli Wallach playing the "Ugly".
The plot is surprisingly deep and very complex, combining bloodshed and betrayal with a cynical look at the American Civil War, filmed to resemble the battlefields of the First World War. Cynicism is the order of the day throughout the film, though, as this is a film where the "Good" is only ostensibly so, and all of the titles of the characters are relative. This is a film which delights in deconstructing the old tropes of the Western, substituting their puritan and upright ethos for a seedy standpoint where morality is subjective and never interferes with the main characters' desire to make money. It captures the frontier spirit of the early Western conquests, and ironically, despite the fact that the film was shot in Spain with mostly European actors, it does a better job of creating the Old West than most American-made Western movies.
Key to this cynicism are the characters themselves. The "Man With No Name", nicknamed Blondie, is only considered to be the "Good" because he refrains from the blatant banditry of his fellow protagonists. At the same time, he has no moral qualms in shooting other would-be bounty hunters or obstructing the law in search of a bundle of dollars. He wouldn't sell you out unless there was more in it for him than there was with the alternative, and with that scenario, he'd sell you down the river quicker than you could blink.
If the "Good" could only be considered so because of a lack of blatant banditry, the same couldn't be said of the "Bad". Angeleyes, a mercenary-for-hire, has absolutely no trouble in playing two sides off against each other, in torturing, in exploitation or murder, a point coolly hammered home within the first fifteen minutes, when he shoots down two paymasters in opposition to each other, claiming his one steadfast principle, "When I get paid for a job, I always see it through to the end." He has few loyalties, being impartial to a cruel extent.
While the "Good" and the "Bad" represent the closest things to moral absolutes in a film which delights in its cynicism and loose morality, the "Ugly" is an altogether more complex character. Tuco is a volatile and notorious bandit, but despite that, he shows considerable charisma. With a stretching and growing list of crimes, Tuco's behaviour seems more selfish than abjectly "good" or "bad", but could loosely be said to be fuelled by the same money-lust that drives the rest of the characters, only with a more unpredictable and more driven personality behind it.
With these characters comes a great deal of unpredictability, as such strong personalities don't lend them well to teamwork, and the film is full of betrayal and shifting, uneasy alliances, which will keep the viewer asking themselves questions to the very end, and making the plot far less derivative and more riveting than would be expected from a Western.
Cinematically, this film is a masterpiece. Sergio Leone proves himself an able practitioner of the "show, don't tell" principle, eschewing dialogue in favour of the cinematic approach. With some of the most able and competent uses of cinematic techniques in a movie, ranging from sweeping camera pans over the battlefields of the Civil War, to framing of the characters, right through to some of the most fantastic close-up shots ever, particularly during the shoot-outs, with close shots of darting and squinting eyes and fidgeting hands (bonus points for those who notice the missing segment of Lee Van Cleef's middle finger), Sergio Leone creates a fantastic sense of style about the film, from the fabulous beginning sequence with its abstractions all the way to the very end, with a shoot-out so stylish that it entrances.
While Leone never relies on his dialogue to propel the movie, managing to do more with a single person's expression than most film-makers manage with most characters' dialogue, when the characters do speak, it's usually something worth listening for. The characters fire off ripostes from their mouth almost as often as they do from their guns, and the lines in this movie prove themselves able to withstand repetition by never seeming forced, and always seeming natural. Of particular note is Tuco's response to a man who has cornered him and gives him a monologue about how long he has waited to find Tuco - a surprise shot, followed by four more, and a reply, "If you need to shoot, shoot! Don't talk!", which perfectly illustrates both the emphasis on action over dialogue in the film, and the one-liner nature of the entire film, where nearly the whole film is worthy of quotation.
While the film would be notable for these preceding characteristics alone, proving itself a fantastic deconstructor of those over-used tropes in the genre, there is one element not yet covered which ensures and cements this film's deserved iconic status.
The music in this film goes beyond good. It goes beyond brilliant. It is quite simply masterful. Apart from the title track, deservedly one of the most well-known tunes ever and known even by those with no knowledge of the film, the music throughout builds tension and adds to what was already a very impressive film. Of particular note is a piece of music called "Ecstasy of Gold", one of the most fitting and masterfully orchestrated pieces in the movie, and one which marks the beginning of the climax of the film perfectly.
With the fine mixture of cinematic art, dialogue which never grates and the plainly beautiful music, there's very little to criticise about this film. It is, however, a very long film at 156 minutes (171 for the extended version), and while the film sustains its pace over its entire length, it is not a film which one can go into with the idea of wasting time. It must be watched from start to finish as a cohesive package, because this film is an epic in the most traditional sense, twisting and turning enough to keep people entranced throughout.
If there was one thing I would criticise, I would note some of the editing decisions made in the extended version of the film. Adding 18 minutes of extra footage, the extended version adds to the film several scenes which were formerly excised from the cinematic release, for American audiences which had grown accustomed to shorter films, usually only an hour and a half long. Unfortunately, these scenes are not of uniform quality, ranging from those which actually add a bit of extra flavour to the film, to those probably best left on the editing floor, and as somebody accustomed to the cinematic release just as much as the extended version, the extra scenes can occasionally grate.
Despite this minor criticism, there is very little that can be said against this film. Forcefully sweeping aside the puritanism of prior Westerns, it stands as progenitor of a new sort of Western film, one that would more accurately look at the Old West as a cynical, blood-stained chapter of American history. Combined to some of the finest cinematic technique ever seen in a film, sparkling and imaginative dialogue and music which fits perfectly and remains utterly memorable more than forty years after its first release, it's not hard to see why The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is so critically acclaimed, and why I give it such a recommendation.
Bottom Line: This film is epic, this film is art, but most of all, this film is enjoyable. There's no reason why any self-proclaimed cinephile should not have seen this film.
Recommendation: Watch it. DVD boxsets of the "Man With No Name" trilogy go for comparative pennies these days, and along with one of the finest and most artistic films ever made, you get two films which are enjoyable in their own right and show just why Clint Eastwood's career was suddenly elevated from that of a lowly television actor into that of a superstar.